On Monday, former US President Bill Clinton wrote in the New York Times that the ‘inclusive nationalism’ which governs the American cultural identity is being slowly replaced by a “tribalism” that emphasizes what divides people of his country rather than what unites them. In his article, he stated that the rise of social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter have procured a fundamental shift in how current affairs are presented to targeted audiences. This, he insinuates, is presented in the form of meta-narratives which target short attention spans rather than intellectual curiosity and reason.
Clinton’s recognition of the pervasiveness of the distortion of truth in contemporary political culture is described by academics as an ‘information cascade’. This notion purports that false, incomplete or inaccurate information may easily enter the public consciousness in today’s age of advanced technology because there are many means by which it can be distributed. Danielle Citron contends that people can “forward on what others think”, such as through Facebook, even if the information is “false, misleading or incomplete” which in turn increases the visibility of the post to a wider audience. President Donald Trump has famously exploited this idea of “fake news” as an election-winning campaign tactic as he knows that it helps his image as an anti-establishment figure; ironically, he is not himself the arbiter of truth himself as PolitiFact has found that 70% of Trump’s statements are false while only 4% are completely true.
It is concerning that some political parties are becoming so focused on manipulating the perspectives of specific segments of the population based on opinion polls and internal factionalism at the cost of even considering a unifying message grounded in the values and principles that are shared by their grassroots base. The recent Kenyan Presidential Election demonstrate that false information has been used by key political actors to deliberately misinform the general public. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance invested a large amount of money into media and public relations. Unsubstantiated allegations and ‘fake news’ stories were spread across popular social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter which proved to be a very effective weapon to manipulate public opinion. A survey by GeoPoll and Portland Communications found that 87% of people found election information spread on social media that was “deliberately false”.
Perhaps what is more problematic is the increasing evidence that we are being exposed to only information which coincides with our pre-conceived views on topics that we care about. Eli Pariser, the co-founder of Upworthy, argues that there is a “filter bubble” within the web which personalizes the content that pops up on our search browsers or social media platforms. Often this “bubble” replicates a particular ideological prism relevant to our own preferences unless we consciously adjust it. The effect of this is that our perspectives are not being challenged which has disastrous consequences for the innovative thinking that should be at the heart of contemporary democracy and the public sphere.
The tech executive Justin Rosenstein argues that social media has created an “attention economy” where companies and platforms use subtle psychological ‘tricks’ to play on the natural cravings of people to experience an arousal in self-confidence. The former Google employee Tristan Harris thinks that this is manifested in the phenomenon of the Facebook ‘like’ because it provides a quick ‘dopamine hit’ and encourages people to continue ‘swiping’ and ‘scrolling’ in an unconscious effort to cover the gaps in human insecurity. However, the unintended benefactors of this function are undoubtedly news outlets, corporations and political parties. These entities use such sites to sensationalize events and issues in order to meet a profit motive or satisfy the interests of a particular product market. For instance, political parties are now reliant on ‘meme pages’ to present a highly simplified and emotional portrayal of political figures or policy issues. Their aim is to bait and entertain the minds of voters. Such modes of communication may be effective to some extent in meeting political goals within the new age of social media, although they should not replace the primacy of rational and informed discussion about issues within social platforms otherwise our society may lurch closer towards a dystopian form of postmodern democracy that is grounded in impulsiveness, sanctimony and irrationality.
Democracy is founded on the notion propounded by philosophers such as Aristotle that citizens as a collective have a right to participate in the processes that are relevant to the formation of laws which govern society as a whole. Ideally, the autonomous, rational and moral citizen would be able to critically assess proposals that are relevant to the common good and this in turn would enhance the capacity of public policy to meet human need and desire. It should be pointed out though that a truly authentic democracy must be at its heart ‘liberal’ which means that it must truly enhance the freedom of the individual in a substantive sense. Naturally, this ‘substantiveness’ can only be met when those who seek to abuse their power are constrained from doing so. As such, human beings should be able to contribute to their democracy in a free and open manner after considering the full scope of the issues at hand with a view to not only their own interests but the interests of the entire community. This can only be achieved when the information that is accessible is diverse and balanced in order to expand the potential of the human mind and thus the rigour of the well-informed policy that governs us.
George Orwell once argued that human beings have an “almost infinite appetite for distractions”. The attention economy recognizes this and in practice dilutes our ability to exercise self-governance which is the primary feature of the cognitive world that ensures that those who govern us are accountable for what they do. If politics is designed to express the collective hopes and dreams of our population in such a complex age, yet the processes by which we achieve such expression are now being unintentionally tarnished by social media, then we do have a problem indeed.
Technology can be used to advance the human experience because it can broaden our awareness of the struggles of our fellow beings and perhaps paradoxically bring us closer together. The power of the media is now huge in our internet age. The challenge for our social media platform owners is to ensure that their online processes do not disrupt truth but rather provide the proper means for human beings to understand the incredibly complex issues that are present within our modern collective story. In order to do this, I think that scientists should be given a greater platform to express their concerns, there should be greater fact-checking and platform owners should seek to not constrain the ability for people to access different forms of opinion on issues that they are interested in. We can even do more to compare the backgrounds and life experiences of political candidates. The possibilities for the enhancement of our democracy through technology are endless, but only if we embrace it in the right way.
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